AS the world strives to curb the spread of Covid-19, efforts are also focusing on understanding the real impact of this virus. In Pakistan, a rapid assessment conducted by the World Food Programme (WFP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations is providing both UN teams on the ground and the government with much-needed data and analysis to determine the best course of action.

The assessment looked at 12 main markets across Pakistan, coupled with secondary data and studies, to determine the impact on livelihoods, food security, nutrition, food prices, and agriculture supply chain. Results indicate that the most vulnerable groups are rural households reliant on smallholding agriculture and livestock and unskilled daily-wage labourers in both rural and urban areas. Households supported by migrant workers have already registered financial losses as lockdowns prompt workers in cities and foreign countries to return.

To make matters worse, the impact of Covid-19 comes at a time when many rural communities and smallholder farmers in Pakistan have been confronted with extreme weather ie drought, floods, cold waves, and now locusts.

These new and protracted shocks could create a food-security crisis with far-reaching consequences.

Covid-19 shocks could create a food-security crisis.

Mitigating socioeconomic impact

The assessment also provides immediate, medium- and long-term recommendations to help counter Covid-19’s impact on the most vulnerable groups. These will contribute to the UN’s response plan for the government of Pakistan. This involves further augmenting the government’s relief packages, reinforcing contingency food stocks and prepositioning them at strategic locations. It also means ensuring the provision of either food or unconditional cash assistance to vulnerable households in both urban and rural areas to avoid the deepening of poverty.

Cash assistance must recognise the increased pressure that women face as a result of Covid-19. This means that the provision of nutrition services and health facilities needs to be supported, including community-based assistance for children. With the closure of schools, measures to ensure children can continue to access nutritionally balanced meals is a key concern and new interventions need to be considered.

Short-term steps

With food systems and food supply chains, short-term steps must be taken to ensure uninterrupted food production, with all inputs being accessible at the right time, regular prices, and financial help to smallholder farmers, including women. Full compliance with government recommendations on social distancing and hygiene applied to transportation with higher standards are key, eg availability of cold storage points in main markets to minimise food losses and improving the quality of products along the supply chain and at selling points. Increased hygiene and social distancing in open markets to protect operators and consumers from the virus spread is critical.

Currently, the FAO is spearheading actions to keep the food supply chain running. Policy and technical support are being provided to the Ministry of National Food Security and Research. The FAO is also working with provincial governments and others to help strengthen communities’ resilience through awareness campaigns and farmer field schools for rural communities. To support agricultural production, it is helping the most vulnerable groups access essential seed, fertiliser, pesticides, agricultural machinery, repair services and spare parts, veterinary services and medicines, and animal feed — critical components of the supply chain.

The WFP supports the government’s Covid-19 response by providing food and cash assistance to meet food and nutrition needs of vulnerable populations. Issuing cash payments to vulnerable people in rural areas will help avoid a compounding wave of hunger and poverty. “We cannot wait until we finish dealing with the health impacts before we turn to food security,” said Qu Dongyu, the FAO’s director general “If we don’t start implementing livelihoods assistance now, we will face multiple food crises.” David Beasley, the WFP’s executive director, has warned the UN Security Council that the world is on the brink of a hunger pandemic “The actions we take will determine our success, or failure, in building sustainable food systems as the basis of stable and peaceful societies.”

Even before Covid-19, 49 million people in Pakistan were food insecure, including 21m severely food insecure and in need of emergency assistance. The WFP and FAO will continue partnering to support the government in addressing the multiple socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic, starting with people’s most basic food and nutrition needs.

Chris Kaye is representative and country director, WFP, Pakistan. Minà Dowlatchahi is representative, FAO, Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2020

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